There is a long hallway between the coaches’ and manager’s offices and the training area next to the Nationals clubhouse on field level at Nats Park. Along this wall is a collection of baseballs positioned on a long single shelf that runs down the hallway. Each ball represents a win the Nats enjoyed so far in 2019.
Written on each baseball are the names of one or more players who, in the estimation of manager Davey Martinez, were the most valuable in each of those victories.
What the skipper started to notice, as the wins piled up, was that the names he decided to put on each baseball were different each game. It wasn’t always the same player listed.
“If you look at how we got here, I mean, you could look back, every guy has done something,” Martinez said. “I started collecting baseballs every game we won. I picked a player of the game, which was tough to do. Some balls have two or three players of the game. And I put them up on the wall.
“And I want them to understand that it takes a whole team to win, not just one individual, so every ball has somebody different on there, each and every game. So we collected all these balls.”
Martinez decided to do this on his own to commemorate each win. Early on, there were not many baseballs going up on the wall. As has been well documented, the Nats started 19-31.
But then, the wins started to pile up: in June, 18 wins, July it was 15 wins, August had 19 wins and in September it was 17 victories.
With each win, Martinez placed a game ball up on the wall.
The Nationals now have 101 wins on the season, counting this run into late October. Their next game is in the World Series beginning Tuesday night.
Martinez’s players would come by during the season and pick up each ball and reminisce about that particular victory during their turnaround run.
“Every now and then, I see guys just going in there, staring at each ball and dates,” Martinez said. “And what we’ve done and how we did it. I could tell that they really appreciate it. You hear them say, ‘Oh, man, I remember this. Strasburg was dealing this day.’ Or, ‘(Gerardo) Parra. Grand slam this day in L.A.!’ They all talk about it and remember it. It’s pretty cool to hear ‘em call each others’ names out, knowing they all participated at some point.”
Right-hander Stephen Strasburg mentioned how the culture in the clubhouse was different this season. Whether it is “Baby Shark” or the dances in the dugout after each home run, this team has a special bond. No jealousy, just team camaraderie. Parra, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Daniel Hudson come to mind as in-season additions that have changed the way this team acts on and off the field.
“I think there’s a personality in the clubhouse and guys that fit certain roles in the clubhouse, and first of all they have to be able to play,” said general manager Mike Rizzo. “That’s first and foremost. Character guys that have some experiences and some success and some failures, I think that all comes into play.
“When you have guys that have been through the highs and lows of a major league season for years and carry the respect of their peers, I think it’s important, and it’s a delicate balance sometimes. And it’s difficult to find, but when you have experience and have been in the game for a long time you run across a lot of different personality and a lot of different players, and I think that aids in the construction of that type of bench and that type of clubhouse atmosphere.”
Martinez said the organic nature of the bonding that this team has built has come from those tough times in May. Those were times pundits, fans and other teams wrote off the Nats. But Martinez steered his team clear of panic and continued to preach what have become familiar team slogans: Go 1-0 today. Stay in the fight.
“The bond that they built amongst themselves, it’s unbelievable,” Martinez said. “They play for each other. There’s no selfishness. These guys believe in each other and they play for each other and they’re constantly together and I love that.”
“After the games, they all huddle up. They’re all jumping around when we win. it’s a huge celebration. You don’t see that often. And every one of those guys are all involved.”
It has been a key to this team playing as one. It is sometimes difficult to find this in baseball because it is a sport where a player can feel very isolated.
In football, it’s 11 on 11. In basketball, it is five on five. But in baseball, it is always one pitcher versus one batter.
The pitcher is alone on the mound. The batter is alone in the batter’s box. But in the dugout and in the clubhouse, these Nats are together. Just watch for the “Baby Shark” finger gesture after each big play. That tells it all about the 2019 Nationals.